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A Reader In Animation Studies

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Cartoons—both from the classic Hollywood era and from more contemporary feature films and television series—offer a rich field for detailed investigation and analysis. Contributors draw on theories and methodology from film, television, and media studies, art history and criticism, and feminism and gender studies.

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What is animation and who needs to know?

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There are many definitions of animation. The most obvious source of one, the Webster dictionary, says animation is:

a: a motion picture made by photographing successive positions of inanimate objects (as puppets or mechanical parts), b: Animated Cartoon, a motion picture made from a series of drawings simulating motion by means of slight progressive changes.

This is a fairly common understanding of the term animation, but it reflects a limited exposure to what the artform has to offer. Whether one agrees with it or not, the Webster definition is useful because one can learn something about who is doing the defining. In this case, the folks at G. & C. Merriam should be encouraged to attend an animation festival.

In the international animation community, many definitions have become established by various organisations and entities. We scholars, teachers and filmmakers would probably not be able to agree on a precise definition, but we would be able to compile a nice list of them. Definitions of animation vary from one another for many reasons, including historical development, production and marketing requirements, and aesthetic preferences.

 

‘Reality’ effects in computer animation

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Giotto, the inventor of 3D

This is how Frederick Hartt, the author of a widely used textbook Art. A History of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture describes the importance of Giotto di Bondone, ‘the first giant in the long history of Italian painting’:

In contemporary Italian eyes the step from Cimabue to Giotto was immense in that weight and mass, light and inward extension were suddenly introduced in a direct and convincing manner.1

Giotto’s miracle lay in being able to produce for the first time on a flat surface three-dimensional forms, which the French could achieve only in sculpture. For the first time since antiquity a painter has truly conquered solid form.2

When the students in an introductory art history survey course that uses Hartt’s textbook were asked to compare Giotto and Cimabue, they described Giotto’s achievements in a somewhat different language: ‘Giotto first achieves strong 3D effect’; ‘Cimabue is still 2D, while Giotto has much more of 3D’. I believe that they were referring to three-dimensional computer graphics imagery. For them it had already become the yardstick by which the realism of any visual representation is to be measured.

 

Second-order realism and post-modernist aesthetics in computer animation

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This paper is concerned with questions of aesthetic form. It is about the relationship between computer imaging and the emergence of a new aesthetics of self – referentiality and surface play. I want to indicate some ways in which such an aesthetic is occurring, and attempt to locate and describe some of its defining characteristics and forms.

I shall do this by examining the short film Red’s Dream (1987) – a computer animation from the domain of popular entertainment. This film is an example of what I call secondary or second-order realism; that is to say, it involves an attempt to produce old ways of seeing or representing by other means. There are two main points.

The first point is that the film displays unprecedented forms of imagery, which involves something more than the simple fact that a new technique or process of image origination has been used in the production of the film. In other words, the new technique of digital imaging does not produce these new forms of image – discussed in what follows – all by itself. What is being attempted with this new means involves particular kinds of contact with already established aesthetic conventions and forms.

 

The Quay brothers’ The Epic of Gilgamesh and the ‘metaphysics of obscenity’

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The puppet animators Stephen and Timothy Quay, with producer Keith Griffiths, form the Atelier Koninck. Their first film, Nocturna Artificialia (1979), a single-puppet film and Ein Brudermord, a two-puppet film based on Kafka, were both heavily atmospheric. The Atelier then made a paper-puppet satire on Stravinsky and a film about the Flemish playwright De Ghelderode. Then followed three art documentaries, for which the Quays made puppet-animated inserts, on Punch and Judy, Janacek and Jan Svankmajer. Songs of the Chief of the Officers of Hunar Louse or This Unnameable Little Broom (1985) (called Gilgamesh for short), a film in which a moronic toddler traps a flying man/insect with a woman-table, changed the direction of their films by fusing puppetry to sexual psychopathology.

© Atelier Koninck

Brothers Stephen Quay (left) and Timothy Quay (right), puppet animators who, with producer Keith Griffiths, created their version of The Epic of Gilgamesh (1985)

 

Narrative strategies for resistance and protest in Eastern European animation

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Soviet Russia’s domination of Eastern European countries for over 40 years (from the fall of the ‘Iron Curtain’ around 1941 until the ‘Glasnost’ of about 1990) brought mixed blessings for animation. On the one hand, Soviet policy favoured cinema as an essential, powerful popular art form and maintained busy animation studios not only for each country but also for distinct ethnic groups; animators were often tenured civil servants with guaranteed full-time employment making not only theatrical cartoons but also public service and educational animation, children’s films of folk culture and titles and special effects for features. On the other hand, Soviet policy dictated sharp guidelines for subject matter and a strict censorship of both preliminary plans and finished films in order to guarantee that all films upheld general communist ideals and current party agendas. While many animators remained content to concentrate on innocent children’s films or benign ‘situation comedies’, some artists attempted to produce allegorical or satirical works critical of totalitarian regimes, and their careful planning to outwit censorship made them, in some cases, create masterpieces of film art. Four festival prize-winners, one from each decade, demonstrate the changing strategies that their filmmakers used to speak out against totalitarian oppression.

 

Putting themselves in the pictures

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In 1975, Laura Mulvey published her seminal article, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, arguing that the object of the gaze in classical Hollywood cinema is female while the subject is male.1 Since then, many theorists have developed Mulvey’s theories in more detail, though others have contested her position. Nonetheless, the issue of the representation of women in film has become, without question, a central concern within media studies, including the realm of animation.

Many filmmakers working in live action and animation have been concerned to find alternative means of portraying women and women’s issues. This essay explores the animation of three British filmmakers: Joanna Quinn, Candy Guard and Alison de Vere. Though each is unique in her choice of form and content, all three use animation to explore the nature of femininity and the experience of being female.

Joanna Quinn’s Girls’ Night Out and Body Beautiful

 

An analysis of Susan Pitt’s Asparagus and Joanna Priestley’s All My Relations

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To describe the woman’s voice in contemporary animation requires a brief historical note on the representation of women in animation as well as their lack of participation in the planning and execution of these works. In addition, we must look to the role the feminist movement has played in both understanding and articulating the place of women in art in general – how at this point we can say the movement has re-politicised art; in this case, film.

To address these issues I wish to refer to two animations: Asparagus by Suzan Pitt and All My Relations by Joanna Priestley. While we can debate the definitions of feminist theory and female imagery, I do not think we will deny the issues, concerns, nor subject matter of these two films. I have chosen these two films, one which uses language, one which does not, because I am particularly interested in the iconographic qualities of animation in a field where the ruling ideologies of language have, in many cases, reduced or limited critical discourse by narrowly inscribing meaning.

 

Clay animation comes out of the inkwell

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Clay animated films were produced in the United States as early as 1908 when Edison Manufacturing released a trick film entitled The Sculptor’s Welsh Rarebit Dream. In 1916, clay animation became something of a fad, as an East Coast artist named Helena Smith Dayton and a West Coast animator named Willie Hopkins produced clay animated films on a wide range of subjects. Hopkins in particular was quite prolific, producing over 50 clay animated segments for the weekly Universal Screen Magazine. But by the 1920s, cartoon animation using either cels or the slash system was firmly established as the dominant mode of animation production. Increasingly, three-dimensional forms such as clay were driven into relative obscurity as the cel method became preferred for studio cartoon production.

Nevertheless, in 1921, clay animation appeared in a film called Modeling, an Out of the Inkwell film from the newly formed Fleischer Brothers studio. Modeling is one of the few known shorts using clay that was released during the 1920s. Modeling included animated clay in eight shots, a novel integration of the technique into an existing cartoon series and one of the rare uses of clay animation in a theatrical short from the 1920s. A closer examination of this Fleischer film is thus significant for two reasons. First, it illustrates how the clay technique ‘fits’ in the Fleischers’ Inkwell series. Second, it reveals a number of traits of the Inkwell format itself. In particular, Modeling shows how the studio maintained an element of novelty in the series by integrating different animation techniques to visualise Ko-Ko the Clown’s fight for corporeal existence, the unvarying central conflict of the series. This broader look at the Inkwell format will show that it embraced a duality of conformity and surprise, of static format and novel technique, of conventional cartoon action set in cartoon space and unconventional animation set in live action studio space. Indeed, even the central star of the series created humour by incorporating within his established ‘star’ persona the regular comic routines of a clown and an antagonistic tendency to leave his cartoon world, disrupting the conventions of film narrative and film space. These dualities became central to the audience’s enjoyment. On the one hand, viewers are comfortable with familiar characters in a familiar format, while on the other, they came to expect from the Fleischer studio the innovative use of animation techniques to visualise Ko-Ko’s on-going subversion of filmic conventions.1 Before turning to a specific examination of Fleischers’ films, an overview of the changes occurring in the emerging animation industry will show what broader impact the slash and cel techniques was having on three-dimensional forms of animation like clay.

 

Bartosch’s The Idea

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Berthold Bartosch deserves to be discussed among the important filmmakers – not just important animators – both for the intrinsic artistry of his 1932 film The Idea and for its seminal position as the first animation film created as an artwork with serious, even tragic, social and philosophical themes (as opposed to ‘documentary’, educational animations of McCay and the Fleischers or abstract animations of Ruttmann and Fischinger). That Bartosch does not always occupy a position of honour in film history stems partly from the fact that the 25-minute Idea has not always been easily available to viewers and partly because The Idea could be his only surviving film from a 45-year career that included some dozen film works.

(Still courtesy William Moritz)

Animator Berthold Bartosch working in his cramped attic studio

Born in 1893 in Bohemia, Bartosch studied art in Vienna and under the influence of his socialist professor Hanslik, began (during World War I) making animated educational films on such topics as communism, humanism and the socialist theories of the Czech patriot Thomas Masaryk. After the war, he moved to the Berlin branch of the leftist Institute for Cultural Research, where he continued his filmmaking – and met Lotte Reiniger. He began working for her on her silhouette animations, primarily animating backgrounds and special effects, such as ocean waves, snow storms, clouds and the moving starscapes behind Prince Ahmed’s flight on the magic horse in the feature-length animated film The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, which they shot between 1923 and 1926. In 1930 he married and moved with Maria to Paris, since the atmosphere in Germany was deteriorating for pacifists and socialists.

 

Norman McLaren and Jules Engel: Post-modernists

ePub

 

Of all the great names in animation, Norman McLaren has, paradoxically, suffered most from a kind of critical neglect. Everyone acknowledges his genius, but few discuss it. Numerous books and articles chronicle his life and describe his works, usually stressing the inventiveness of his filmic techniques, but rarely do they analyse his aesthetic qualities and achievements.1

Most texts oriented toward animation as a Fine Art – such as the catalogue for the massive Film as Film exhibition that toured Germany and England from 1977 until 1979 – ignore McLaren entirely while including Len Lye, Oskar Fischinger, Harry Smith, James Whitney and other animators who are McLaren’s peers.2 Aside from Terence Dobson’s splendid paper delivered at the 1989 Society for Animation Studies conference in Los Angeles, which gave a close textual reading of McLaren’s film Synchromy in comparison with Oskar Fischinger’s Radio Dynamics, the only other serious critical analysis of McLaren’s aesthetics comparatively is David Curtis’s article ‘Locating Norman McLaren’.3 Curtis might have written the article in response to the Film As Film exhibition, which excluded McLaren and of which Curtis was the British co-ordinator. Curtis dares to speak the doubts that perhaps plague other serious critics, which they feel awkward about articulating.

 

Disney, Warner Bros. and Japanese animation

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This paper essays an analysis of the philosophy behind two of the most prolific cartoon producers, Disney cartoons and the Japanese cartoon industry, while also examining that of contemporaneous non-Disney American cartoon studios. All were involved in serial production; that is, studios organised for the continuous production of animated films whether they were shorts or feature films for the cinema, television or the video-cassette market or television episodes or specials.

I concentrate on the birth and refinement of Disney’s philosophy during those years when Walt was working his hardest to promote the growth of his studios; that is, the period from 1928 (the creation of Mickey Mouse) to 1941 (the strike). Hence the emphasis on production for cinema, which was at that time Disney’s main concern. The development of the philosphy behind Japanese cartoons, on the other hand, happened in the 1960s; that is, in the television era, although cinema still played an important role (as did videos in later years).

 

The thief of Buena Vista

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We begin with a true story, but one so dense with stories within its stories, so layered with conflicting versions of the truth, that it seems to have garnered the narrational generative capacities of myth. It would take a modern Sheherezade far more than a thousand-and-one nights to unravel the complex skein of fact and fiction that surrounds the ur-narrative of the Gulf War of 1990. But that is not the purpose of this essay: here we are concerned with tracing how that vast story-cycle of fact is entangled with another story, the fictional film Aladdin, which is itself enmeshed in a dense mesh of true stories and tall tales, a whole discourse of ideas about the Middle East and about ‘Otherness’.

Once upon a time, not too long ago, relations between Islamic states in the Middle East were fraught with political tensions. Meanwhile, in a land called Buena Vista, far to the West, some artists constructed a film set in a Middle East that looked very different from the one people saw on the news. The land they painted was filled with magic and fantasy, while the other was filled with strife and anger. This paper concerns what enabled two such contradictory visions of the Middle East to manifest themselves.

 

Animatophilia, cultural production and corporate interests

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One of the best-publicised events related to animation and video during 1992 was the conflict between Nickelodeon and filmmaker John Kricfalusi over the cablecast animation series The Ren & Stimpy Show. Critics have hailed Kricfalusi as ‘a man of genius’ and the series as ‘the best animated cartoon to come along since the glory days of the 1940s’.1 Nickelodeon owned the rights to the programme and characters devised by Kricfalusi. Despite the acclaim for the filmmaker and the series, Nickelodeon transferred production from Kricfalusi’s Spumco studio to a new Games Productions studio, which used many former Spumco staff. Nickelodeon maintained that they were forced into this position because of Kricfalusi’s erratic performance. The filmmaker allegedly missed production deadlines and exceeded budgets on a regular basis. Kricfalusi claimed that Nickelodeon did not understand the series. Confronted with something that was too innovative and creative for pedestrian minds, averred the filmmaker, the company chose to remove Kricfalusi in order to produce a more conventional and low-budget series.

 

Francis Bacon and Walt Disney revisited

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Francis Bacon and Walt Disney is the provocative title of an essay by John Berger.1 The provocation is in the link between ‘High Art’ and ‘Low Art’ as seen by the bourgeois art world and Berger uses the link to question the quality of Bacon’s work. However, he does so in such detail and in such a way that he reveals a potential link far more complex and suggestive than the dismissive intent of his essay. Berger is always incisive and he uncovers connections where previously cultural assumptions concealed the tracks.

The opening of the essay brings together three strands of evidence in a manner clearly designed for ironic effect. He describes Bacon’s subject matter in a way which emphasises the violence and degradation he sees in them: ‘A carcass with splints on it. A man on a chair smoking. One walks past his painting as if through some gigantic institution . . .’, and he punctuates the list with evidence of Bacon’s high standing in the art world: ‘According to the magazine Connaissance des Arts, Bacon became the first of the top ten most important artists’ while also ceding:

 

Body consciousness in the films of Jan Svankmajer

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I believe that body, figure, extension, movement and place are only fictions of my mind. What, then, shall be considered true? Perhaps only this, that there is nothing certain in the world.1

– Rene Descartes

We shall never completely master nature; and our bodily organism, itself a part of that nature, will always remain a transient structure with a limited capacity for adaptation and achievement. This recognition does not have a paralysing effect. On the contrary, it points the direction for our activity.2

– Sigmund Freud

The work of Jan Svankmajer, celebrated Czechoslovakian animator and avant-garde filmmaker, demonstrates an ongoing pre-occupation with the codes and conditions of bodily function and identity. His fictions are characterised by the recognition of transience in the body and the place of the body as a defining instrument in socio-cultural mechanisms and indeed, as a socio-cultural mechanism. Svankmajer uses the unique vocabulary of animation in expressing these principles and essentially re-defines the conditions by which the body might be represented and re-defined aesthetically and politically.

 

Eisenstein and Stokes on Disney

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Sergei Eisenstein loved the cartoon figure Mickey Mouse. The Soviet film director not only admired Walt Disney’s films but also made them part of the subject matter of his theoretical studies. With his characteristic ambition, these theoretical explorations of Disney’s animation were intended to serve as the bases for understanding animation and developing questions alluding to the nature of art itself.1 Most of these writings are from the early 1940s, some years after his return from Hollywood where he had met Disney in 1937.2 He was also reconsidering or at least reformulating his theoretical ideas, especially that of montage. That Disney should play a part in Eisenstein’s fresh thoughts on cinema is characteristic of the latter’s eclectic approach to ideas, borrowing from all the arts, especially painting and literature.

By no means does this essay attempt to unravel fully Eisenstein’s insights into Disney and the issues of film animation; rather, it settles more modestly on a particular aspect relating to a question of aesthetics that is articulated by Eisenstein in primarily psychological terms. It was prompted largely by the intriguing fact that Adrian Stokes, the English aesthete in the same period, also refers briefly but fascinatingly to Disney’s Silly Symphonies and Mickey Mouse in his book Tonight the Ballet,3 published in 1935. Although Stokes’s references are less sustained than Eisenstein’s, they betray similarities in their associations with an idea of omnipotence, one that I wish to discuss here. As we shall see, Disney haunts the discourse on classical ballet in Britain during the 1930s and 1940s.

 

Towards a post-modern animated discourse

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Mikhail Bakhtin complained that the wit of Voltaire and the Enlightenment era lacked the full-bodied comedy of the Medieval marketplace. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin celebrated the universal, ambivalent and grotesque ‘carnival comedy’ of the sixteenth century.1 Enlightenment laughter is primarily mocking and satiric, subverting the folly of the hierarchy in its feasts of fools, asses and administrators. Medieval comedy, however, affirmed, renewed and revitalised the old, bringing forth new birth, life, hope and laughter. It simultaneously took apart and put together the Body of Humanity and the Christian Church. By means of deconstruction and then reconstruction, carnival laughter simultaneously derided and delighted in the social and cultural apparatus of its era.

Medieval laughter reduced the mysteries of social and religious existence by playing with their forms without denying them. The highest form stood with the lowest; the vulgar gave the pre-eminent meaning; the clown sat on the throne. Nonsense ruled sense’s domain; and humour was intertwined with the humility and humanity of all those who came from the dust (or humus, the root of humanity, humility and humour) and would return unto it.

 

Restoring the aesthetics of early abstract films

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Critical writing about the abstract films of the 1920s is generally ‘bogged down’ with the question of primacy. Hans Richter, who supplied information to most early film historians, stressed the point that his own films were the first abstract, experimental films ever made – along with Viking Eggeling’s Diagonal Symphony – which Richter dated 1919 or 1921, even in film titles that he had made during the 1950s and 1960s. He consistently suggested that Walther Ruttmann and Oskar Fischinger began filmmaking later, that Fischinger was a pupil and assistant of Ruttmann’s, and furthermore insisted that Ruttmann was an artistic fraud whose films lacked a true sense of rhythm or harmony. Following the publication of Louise O’Konor’s superb biographical study of Eggeling1 and Wulf Herzogenrath’s collected research for the 1977 Film als Film exhibit at the Kölnischer Kunstverein, it became clear that Richter was lying.

In late 1920 or early 1921, Richter and Eggeling had UFA studio technicians animate (or perhaps just shoot) some tests of their scroll drawings. Richter’s test strip, about 30 seconds long (at silent speed), he named Film is Rhythm and showed it publicly, and by his own account2 this test strip was so short that one critic in Paris missed the whole thing because he took off his glasses to clean them and the film ended before he had put them back on. Werner Graeff3 recalls how Richter, in 1922, had still not realised that the film-frame format was basically horizontal instead of the vertical imagery in Richter’s drawings – and how he helped Richter to shoot some additional seconds of footage (also disappointing and unsatisfactory) which Richter added to Film is Rhythm and showed this now one-minute-long ‘film’ at the famous May 1925 Absolute Film Show in Berlin. By October 1927, after his marriage to Erna Niemeyer (who had been Eggeling’s animator for Diagonal Symphony), Richter had acquired another 30 seconds of film, now titled simply Rhythm, for a London Film Society program. This approximately 90-second fragment by Richter’s own admission corresponds to the middle section of the erroneously titled Rhythm 23, while the rest of Rhythm 23 and the so-called Rhythm 21 were shot in late 1927 and early 1928 by Erna Niemeyer while preparing the Film Study (which Richter habitually dates 1926, despite the Film Society’s 21 October 1928 program notes indicating that this new film was completed after his ‘less finished work’ shown the previous year).

 

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